Tena Clark was born in 1953 in a tiny Mississippi town close to the Alabama border, where the legacy of slavery and racial injustice still permeated every aspect of life. On the outside, Tena’s childhood looked like a fairytale. Her father was one of the richest men in the state; her mother was a regal beauty. The family lived on a sprawling farm and had the only swimming pool in town; Tena was given her first car—a royal blue Camaro—at twelve.
But behind closed doors, Tena’s life was deeply lonely, and chaotic. By the time she was three, her parents’ marriage had dissolved into a swamp of alcohol, rampant infidelity, and guns. Adding to the turmoil, Tena understood from a very young age that she was different from her three older sisters, all of whom had been beauty queens and majorettes. Tena knew she didn’t want to be a majorette—she wanted to marry one.
On Tena’s tenth birthday, her mother, emboldened by alcoholism and enraged by her husband’s incessant cheating, walked out for good, instantly becoming an outcast in society. Tena was left in the care of her black nanny, Virgie, who became Tena’s surrogate mother and confidante—even though she was raising nine of her own children and was not allowed to eat from the family’s plates or use their bathroom. It was Virgie’s acceptance and unconditional love that gave Tena the courage to stand up to her domineering father, the faith to believe in her mother’s love, and the strength to be her true self.
Combining the spirit of poignant coming-of-age memoirs such as The Glass Castle and vivid, evocative Southern fiction like Fried Green Tomatoes, Southern Discomfort is about the people and places that shape who we are—and is destined to become a new classic.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Where I grew up, girls like me knew our place. We were expected to smile politely and keep our white-gloved hands folded neatly in our laps when we sat in church. We spoke only when spoken to. We said: “Yes, sir,” and “No, thank you, ma’am,” and “Why yes, some sweet tea would be just fine.” Back talk was not an option. We did not ask: “Why?” We did not say: “That doesn’t seem fair.” We were expected to wear stiff, pressed dresses even under the blazing Mississippi sun, and to have perfectly curled hair and lightly powdered faces in the drenching humidity. As we grew up, we understood that stepping off the prescribed path in any way meant risking it all, and probably losing.
Where I’m from, men like my father—rich, Cadillac-driving, Klan-sympathizing men—made the money. Women like my mother—beautiful, charming, educated only in how to entertain—ran the houses. If these women had any dreams beyond tending to their husbands, babies, and barbeques, they kept those thoughts to themselves.
Black maids, like the two women who tended to me—first, Viola; then Virgie—raised the white children they cared for but were not allowed to sit at the family table, drink from the family’s cups, or ride in the front seat of their cars.
Black men and children were still called “boy,” as in “What are you starin’ at, boy?” And “nigger,” as in, “I’m gonna need a few more niggers to pick my pecans this year.” If you recoiled from the word, if it made your stomach clench and your insides boil, you were considered a “nigger lover,” a dangerous insult. And if word of your sympathies spread, your family feared waking in the middle of the night to a burning cross on the lawn, or a brick thrown through the dining room window during supper.
If your glamorous, tortured wife became an alcoholic, like my mother did, you sent her away to the state mental hospital in a straitjacket to dry out. If your husband was a notorious skirt-chaser, like my father was, you might pull your .38 Colt out at the dinner table and chase him around the house, threatening to kill him right then and there, but only after your dinner guests had left for the evening.
And if you were a lesbian, before you even knew there was a word for the feelings you had had for as long as you could remember, you suppressed this fundamental part of yourself for as long as you possibly could. You lived a lie. You kissed boys and wore their fraternity pins, curled your hair, entered beauty pageants, joined a sorority. You and your friends talked about wedding cakes, honeymoons, and how many babies you wanted, just like you were supposed to. Because that’s what good girls did.
Appearances mattered above all. “That’s just the way it is” and “Let it be” were common refrains.
* * *
Growing up in Waynesboro, Mississippi, in the heart of the Jim Crow Deep South, I never thought there was any other way than the way it had always been. No one I knew ever ventured farther north than Memphis or maybe Nashville, and that was just fine with them.
My roots ran deep into the red earth; the land felt as much a part of me as my limbs, my heart. I hated it with a fury. I loved it with an all-consuming passion. This is the great paradox of the South. It’s a savage place, a complicated place, and yet it still burrows into you, like the fangs of one of the water moccasins I used to hunt as a young girl down on the Chickasawhay River behind our farm. There’s venom in the soil. But there’s an alluring beauty in it as well.
For a time, I assumed I had no choice but to stay on the straight and narrow path that had been laid out for me since birth. I’d wear the pressed dresses, the curled hair, the pin. I’d hold my tongue. I’d mind my manners. I’d play the clarinet and the piano even though I longed to play the drums. I’d marry a man exactly like my father, even though I was attracted to girls from the time I was four or five, when I first laid eyes upon a majorette in her green sequined leotard and white tassled boots. I’d be a charming and gracious hostess. I’d have the children, the impeccable house. Maybe I’d even have the black maid to raise my children and a staff of black men to pick the pecans and cut the lawn. I’d pass out finger sandwiches and pour sweet tea. And the cycle would continue.
Or maybe I’d find out I was stronger than I thought I was. And the cycle—at least for me—would end.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Southern Discomfort includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Tena Clark. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Tena Clark was born in 1953 in a tiny rural Mississippi town, where the legacy of slavery and racial injustice permeated every aspect of life. On the outside, her childhood resembled a fairy tale. Her father was a successful businessman and her mother was a beauty queen. But behind closed doors, Tena’s life was deeply lonely and chaotic. By the time she was three, her parents’ marriage had dissolved. Adding to the turmoil, Tena understood from a very young age that she was different from her three older sisters, all of whom had been beauty queens and majorettes. Tena knew she didn’t want to be a majorette—she wanted to marry one.
On Tena’s tenth birthday, her mother, emboldened by alcoholism and enraged by her husband’s incessant cheating, walked out for good, instantly becoming an outcast in society. With her parents distracted and her sisters grown up and out of the house, Tena was left in the care of her black nanny, Virgie, who became Tena’s surrogate mother and confidante, and whose acceptance and love gave Tena the strength to be herself and challenge the strict rules of the society in which she was raised.
Southern Discomfort is a moving story of Tena’s coming-of-age and the people—and places—that shaped her.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why do you think Tena choose to title her memoir Southern Discomfort? Describe the South in which Tena came of age. What aspects of life in the South does Tena take umbrage with? Why?
2. From an early age, music has a profound influence on Tena’s life. When she first plays the drums, she says, “I knew that whatever that sensation was, I wanted more of it.” What doors does it open for her personally and professionally? How does music help Tena connect with her mother?
3. Tena writes that, “In many ways, [Vivian and Lamar] were meant for each other.” Given that Southern Discomfort begins with Vivian leaving Lamar, were you surprised by Tena’s statement? What did you think of Vivian and Lamar’s relationship? Do you think that they were ever well suited for each other? If so, explain how. What are Vivian and Lamar initially attracted to in each other?
4. Lamar Clark is nicknamed “the Dictator of Waynesboro” by some of the town’s residents. Did you see any of his actions as dictatorial? Share some examples of behavior that might have caused Lamar to earn this title. How do you think he was influenced by growing up impoverished? What did you think of Lamar? Did you learn anything about Lamar that you found surprising? Discuss your discoveries with your book club.
5. While Lamar is upset each time Vivian gives birth to a girl, she “adored each new baby, and vowed to be a different kind of mother than the one she’d endured.” Describe Vivian’s childhood. What was her mother like? Does Vivian succeed in mothering in a different way than her own mother? If so, how? Compare Vivian’s style of parenting to her mother’s and to Tena’s.
6. Describe Tena’s reaction when she first sees Virgie. Were you surprised? Why do you think that Tena is so unwelcoming to Virgie? Rather than ignore Tena’s tantrum, Virgie kneels down in front of Tena and speaks to her. Why? How does this help her gain Tena’s trust?
7. Although Tena wants her father to see her musical, once he is at the opening she “realize[s her] mistake in wanting him there, particularly at the opening.” Why does Tena think she has made an error in inviting her father? How does his presence affect the way she experiences the opening? How does Lamar react to the show and to Tena’s achievement? Why do you think attaining Lamar’s praise and approval is so important to Tena?
8. Tena begs Vivian to visit Lamar when he is on his deathbed. Why is it so important for Tena that Vivian makes this visit? Vivian tells Tena “I came here for me. Do you understand? I came here for me.” Explain her statement. How does the visit help Vivian achieve closure with regard to her relationship with Lamar?
9. According to Tena, hearing the name “Whitfield” is enough to strike “cold fear into the heart of every Mississippian.” Why? Describe Vivian’s reaction upon being taken there by Lamar. Tena says that, “for the first time in my life, I realized how much power Daddy had over all of us.” Explain her statement. Do you think that Tena and her sisters had any choice in going along with Lamar’s plan? Discuss the family dynamics.
10. When Vivian leaves Lamar, she tells Tena, “I have to go. If I don’t go now, I never will.” What prompts Vivian to leave Lamar? Why do you think Vivian stayed married to Lamar as long as she did? What sorts of obstacles does she face as a divorced woman in the South during the early 1960s? Did you think that Vivian was brave for leaving Lamar? Does Tena? Why or why not?
11. Tena recounts two instances where she attempted to eat with Virgie at Petty’s Cafe, one during segregation and one after segregation is illegal. Why does she include both in her memoir? Describe Virgie’s reaction to Tena’s gesture in each instance. Why is Tena excited to take Virgie to Petty’s after segregation has been outlawed? Why might Virgie be uncomfortable? How does Tena view her actions in hindsight?
12. When Vivian meets Tena’s fiancée, Dell, she warns Dell about marrying Tena, telling Dell that Tena is “the spittin’ image of Lamar Clark, and she’s gonna screw around on you the way her daddy done to me.” Why does Vivian think this about Tena? How does Tena feel about her mother’s statements? Do you think that Tena is like Lamar? If so, in what ways are they similar?
13. How does Tena’s family react when she tells them that she is gay? Did you find any of their reactions surprising? If so, which ones and why? Explain your answer.
14. Tena says that “With Virgie . . . and all the other black folks in my life, I felt more me in my own skin.” Explain her statement. How do Virgie and the others put Tena at ease? Compare Tena’s life in her parents’ house with that of the families in Hiwannee. Why does Tena secretly wish that she could live in Hiwannee? How is Vigrie’s presence a stabilizing one for Tena?
15. As Tena gets older, she says her mother “time and again [tells her] she felt she . . . failed [in gift giving] because ‘Your Daddy can always buy you anything you want.’” Why is giving Tena a big birthday gift so important to Vivian? Does she succeed in getting Tena a meaningful gift? If so, what is it and why does it mean so much to Tena?
A Conversation with Tena Clark
Congratulations on the publication of your memoir Southern Discomfort! What has been the most rewarding part of publishing your memoir? Were there aspects of publishing that surprised you?
The process of going back in time and looking at the events and people that shaped my early years has been illuminating and difficult. It hasn’t always been an easy process. Telling the truth about your own life—the good, the bad, and the ugly, never is—but it’s been very healing for me. It’s also been wonderful to be in a kind of conversation again with my mother, my father, and Virgie. Writing about them has brought them back to life in a way, affording me the chance to say things to them now that I couldn’t say when they were alive.
Publishing this book has also forced me to reckon with all of my complicated feelings about Mississippi and the South. It’s a love-hate relationship for sure. It’s a beautiful place; it’s a tortured place. It’s a place trapped in a different time, it’s a place where real progress is possible. I’m not sure if I’ll ever wrap my head around Mississippi—it’s like a puzzle I’m still figuring out.
I’ve definitely shed a lot of tears as I looked back on my life, but this is a story that I feel needs to be told, and I’ve been waiting all my life to tell it. So it also feels like a weight has been taken off my shoulders.
You recount how your mother told you, “You write that book, but just wait until I’m dead.” When did you begin writing your memoir and why did you choose to publish it now? What do you think your mother would think about your memoir if she could read it?
In 1990, my father said something to me about our family that I knew to be a blatant lie, and in that moment, something inside me just snapped. I was traveling for work at the time and I remember sitting in my hotel room and not being able to sleep. So I turned on my tape recorder and decided I had to tell my story to myself. The truth as I knew it. Eight hours and over a hundred transcribed pages later, I felt like I had finally started the process toward healing. At the time, I thought of it as something I’d done just for myself, but then I ended up showing the pages to my mother. She read them in one sitting through tears. That’s when she said she wanted me to write a book about my life, but she asked me to wait until she died to have it published.
I filed the pages away and didn’t turn back to them until several years after my mother passed away. My daughter and several close friends had been after me to write a book about my life. Finally, I sat down and went through the document I’d shared with my mother. It was very rough, but it was the start I needed. The book progressed from there.
My mother was always a big supporter of my creative endeavors. When I was performing as a musician she was always my balcony person, cheering me on. She was, and remains, my number one fan. Even though she’s physically gone from this world, I still feel her presence with me all the time. She’s still my balcony person. I know she’d be proud to see Southern Discomfort in print, and I know she’d be especially thrilled to know if my book inspired even just one reader to live a more authentic life.
Has the rest of the family read it? If so, were you nervous to share it with them? What do they think of it?
As of this writing, my daughter is the only member of my immediate family who has read Southern Discomfort and she is so thrilled and proud. She’s an avid reader so her approval meant the world to me. My two surviving sisters have not read it yet, and I’m not sure if they ever will. I’m sure it’s difficult for them to relive those years and to know what I went through. I know they wish I had just “let it be,” as they say in the South. “Just let it be” was the refrain from my childhood. Don’t rock the boat, don’t go diggin’ up old bones. I hope and pray that they’ll come to understand why I couldn’t just bury my story out in the backyard in a box—that there’s a redemptive power in telling the truth, and then sharing it with others.
Did you find writing your memoir cathartic? Were there any sections that were particularly hard to write? Can you tell us about them?
Writing the memoir was an extremely cathartic experience for me. It was sacred and holy. That’s not to say it was always easy or pleasurable. From start to finish, this has been one of the most difficult journeys I’ve ever taken. I had to look at the South through a new lens. I had to examine painful moments that happened in my family. I had to look at my own motivations and assumptions, I had to confront my own privilege, and I had to expose the prejudices of the world in which I was raised. There were so many times during the writing process when I had to pick up the phone and call my best friend, Burke, and ask: “Did this really happen? Was it as crazy as I recall?” And he’d always say: “Yes, Tena. Only it was even crazier!” I’m grateful to have close friends from that time who are still in my life and who have been supportive of me.
Writing this book has also helped me see that my childhood wasn’t all doom and gloom. There are many things that were magical about growing up in rural Mississippi. The smell of magnolia in the summer, riding horses bareback through the fields, the sound of Virgie’s gentle humming, the look on my mother’s face when she was singing . . .
That said, a flood of painful memories also surfaced during this process. I had to relive my mother’s alcoholism and confront my father’s dichotomies. My dad was the most complicated man I’ve ever known. Truly. I know he loved me, and I believe he tried to care for me the best way he knew. But he was the ultimate gaslighter. As readers will see, even his racism was extremely complicated, and not in the way you might expect.
I also had to go through the deaths of my parents and Virgie again and again while writing and revising this book. I still cry every time I think about their final days.
You’ve written and produced Grammy Award–winning music, worked with iconic artists, and written the theme song for NASA. Did your previous creative experiences help you when it came to writing Southern Discomfort? How was writing your memoir different?
Songwriting and memoir writing are similar in that in order to work well they need to be complete narratives with a strong voice and sense of rhythm, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. Other than that, they are two very different worlds and two very different crafts. A song is three to four minutes, and the lyrics usually spill out of me in one day. Writing this book took three years of active work. It took me a good year to find the right voice, one year to focus the narrative, and another year of revision.
You recount scenes from your childhood so vividly. How were you able to do so? Can you tell us about writing process?
In my experience, Southerners are natural storytellers—and most tend to be longwinded too! We can’t just tell you we went to the store to buy a loaf of bread; we have to recount every little thing that happened from the moment we left the house. Make a long story longer, that’s our motto.
I do have a vivid memory, especially when it comes to sensorial details and imagery. I can remember how our local cafe smelled for lunch everyday, and the way Virgie’s skin felt scratching my back. I can still see the color of the trees outside my fifth grade classroom the day Kennedy was shot. I can remember so much of what happened fifty to sixty years ago. Unfortunately, my short-term memory is shot. I cannot remember where my phone, keys, or glasses are, but I can remember exactly what I was wearing the day my mother left, on my tenth birthday. I wonder sometimes if childhood trauma causes certain painful memories to embed in our brains even more than the beautiful times and moments. I’ve always remembered with detail colors, smells, expressions, surroundings of moments.
As far as my process goes, I’ve never been able to just sit down and write on demand. Whether I’m working on a song or an article or a chapter in my book, the words have to come when they come, unbidden. I cannot force them. When they do surface, I find I can disappear into writing for days. I get in my groove and don’t come up for air. And then I hit a wall and put the work away for a week, and then go back to it. I know many writers who say they have to write every single day, but that’s not how I am. I go in bursts.
You’ve been an activist from an early age, from standing up to the Ku Klux Klan to insisting that Petty’s Cafe uphold laws that made segregation illegal. What did you learn from your early attempts at activism? Do you have advice for people who are looking to become activists?
One of my earliest memories was secretly watching, with great awe, President Kennedy’s landmark speech on civil rights on June 11, 1963. The whole speech resonated with me, but this part stuck with me in particular:
One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.
I was ten years old, and I felt like I’d finally met someone who felt the same way about things that I did. I had never understood why Virgie wasn’t allowed to ride in the front seat of our car when my father drove her home after work. My parents had little interest in Kennedy, and absolutely no interest in integration or in the civil rights movement that was gaining traction as I came of age. As far as my parents and their friends were concerned, everyone in Mississippi was perfectly happy with the status quo.
Hearing Kennedy’s words had a profound impact on me. I looked around at the African Americans I knew and loved—my nanny, Virgie, her best friend, Beulah Mae—and felt in my bones that the legacy of slavery and racism was a poison that still infected our world. I was a little girl and couldn’t have articulated any of this at the time, but it’s what I felt in a visceral way. We were on the wrong side of history; we were on the wrong side of righteousness and justice. Kennedy’s words echoed through me and stayed with me. I was devastated when he was assassinated.
I’d always known deep down that I was different from my peers, and from others in my family. Part of it was circumstantial—I came out as a lesbian when I was twenty-one, but all my life I knew I was different. I didn’t have the word to describe what I was, I simply knew from an early age that I was attracted to girls, and I didn’t see myself as feminine or womanly in the same way my sisters did. I didn’t want to be a majorette like they had been—I wanted to marry one! Knowing I was different caused me to feel more compassion for those who live without the dignity they deserve, without rights that every human being deserves, on the fringes, and it laid the groundwork for my early activism.
I was also aware that I was a child of privilege, which gave me the motivation to take a stand on behalf of others who didn’t have the same advantages I did. I was white; my father was wealthy and powerful. I felt it was up to people like me to be part of the change, and to stand with my black brothers and sisters and resist the racism and bigotry that poisoned our world. I wanted to break the cycle that had persisted for generations. I still do.
Standing up for what you believe and being authentic is not easy and it is definitely not always popular, especially in places where outdated prejudices still linger. Your family may turn on you, some acquaintances or friends may turn on you, but doing what is right will set you free.
You grew up in a society where gender roles were clearly defined. How were you able to overcome the pressure to comply? Do you have any advice for others who are in a similar situation?
I look back on myself as a little girl, all dressed up in crinoline, my hair curled, and I wish I could hug her and say: “Don’t worry! This won’t last. You’re going to have a great life. Stay strong.” It was hard growing up a tomboy in a world full of petticoats. I remember seeing Idgie Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes and thinking “That was me!” It was the first time I felt like I saw myself represented in a Hollywood film. In my town every girl dreamed of marriage, motherhood, the white picket fence. I knew I would not survive if I had to live that life.
For me, music was my savior. I fell in love with the drums when I was ten and then it just went on from there. Making music was an outlet for my aggression and frustration, my sadness and my fear. It was a safe place for me to be myself. And it was through music that I finally found the courage to embrace who I was. So my first piece of advice would be to find a creative outlet, whether it’s painting or writing or sculpture or music . . . whatever it is. Find a way to channel your feelings into something beautiful and meaningful and personal.
A second piece of advice is to surround yourself with people who love and accept you for who you are. I found those people in the most surprising places. Virgie was certainly one of the first people who silently and tacitly accepted my differences and adored me even more because of them. My friends in the music world did as well. Friends I’ve made through my church, through activism. You’ll find your tribe, I promise.
Finally, realize that a life lived as a lie will never be a happy life. As difficult as it may be, I urge you to find the courage to be your authentic self. Understand that it might be hard for the people in your life to accept it at first. Understand that there will be some people in your life who will never fully understand—and that that’s okay. You will survive, and you will thrive, but first you must be true to yourself.
What do you hope the readers take away from Southern Discomfort?
I hope people reading my book will see that there’s redemption in telling the truth. I also hope they’ll see the power of love and forgiveness. As dysfunctional as my family was, and still is, and through all the chaos, we have stayed close, and we love each other very, very much.
I hope readers will be inspired by my story to be kinder, braver, more compassionate, and more tolerant. And at the end of the day, that the message will be that love is what sustains us and unites us. Love is what heals; love is what always gets us through the hardest of times—love of family, love of community, love of the downtrodden and less fortunate, and, most of all, love of self. Love and respect. That’s what it’s all about.
Finally, I hope readers will be inspired to be an agent of positive change, to realize that one person really can take a stand and make a difference.
Are you working on anything now?
I’m busy working on a variety of music projects for film and television and of course I am as active as ever in social justice reform.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Of growing up in the South, Tena writes, “My roots ran deep into the red earth; the land felt as much a part of me as my limbs, my heart. I hated it with a fury. I loved it with an all-consuming passion. This is the great paradox of the South.” This same sentiment appears in Southern literature, most notably in the work of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. Can you think of any other examples? Discuss them with your book club. What are the markers of Southern literature? How do the authors deal with their own paradoxical relationships with the South?
2. Tena remarks that upon watching To Kill a Mockingbird, she saw Scout and “nearly wept with recognition. It was like . . . watching a version of [herself] on screen.” Watch To Kill a Mockingbird with your book club. Why do you think Tena identifies with Scout? How is Tena like Scout as a young girl?
3. For Tena, helping Virgie hang the laundry is a particularly special memory. She says, “Whether it was the quiet of the surrounding fields or the sharing of a simple task or the gentle respect that she bestowed on me in asking for my help, those moments remain as dear and sweet as any I have.” Is there anyone in your life who is as special to you as Virgie is to Tena? Who are they and why are they so special to you? Share some treasured memories of them with your book club.
4. To learn more about Tena Clark and find out when she will be appearing in a city near you, visit her official site at tenaclark.com.